The following is an interview with President Kocharian and the Italian Avenire daily newspaper–in which they discus various important issues of Armenia and its citizens.
Avenire: Mr. President–Armenia is celebrating the 1700th anniversary of Christianity these days. What is the significance of this celebration for the state?
Robert Kocharian: The 1700th anniversary of the adoption of Christianity as a state religion is an event of utmost importance for the Armenian people and the Armenian state. With the adoption of Christianity–Armenia experienced a new spiritual and cultural awakening; the alphabet and literature were created–along with brilliant examples of architecture–historiography–and philosophy–which enriched the treasury of universal Christian values. We–the Armenia’s–are proud to be the first to adopt and encourage at a state level the exalted humanitarian ideas of Christianity. The 1700th anniversary of Christianity is yet another opportunity for our state to evaluate the past and to restate independent Armenia’s commitment to universal Christian values. It is not simply a tribute to the past–but a celebration of spiritual unity among all Armenia’s–with which we strengthen the faith on the road towards creating a free and prosperous Homeland.
Avenire: The Pope will visit Armenia for the first time in history. What kind of feelings and expectations do you have?
R.K.: The visit by the Pope John Paul II to Armenia is–beyond doubt–an event of great importance for our country’s spiritual–cultural and political life.
This would be the first time when the head of the Catholic Church visits Armenia–and we are looking forward to this historical event with joy and the warmest of feelings. Armenia highly appreciates the role of the Vatican as a spiritual center–as well as a protector of human rights and moral norms–an advocate of peace and stability in the world.
Avenire: The Vatican has already called the events in 1915 a genocide. Do you think it is important for the Pope to raise that issue again here–in Armenia? What influence can this have on international community?
R.K.: We welcome the joint communiqu on the Armenian Genocide adopted last year by the Pope John Paul II and the Catholicos of All Armenia’s Karekin II.
This is evidence of the Vatican’s unconditional commitment to universal values. It is impossible to heal the wounds of the past without restoring historical truth–and the Vatican took an important step in that direction. In the last few years–parliamen’s of many countries–as well as several cities–provinces and states have passed resolutions and decisions denouncing the Armenian Genocide. This is an issues that refers not only to the Armenian people–but also to the entire civilized world. It is of international moral and political importance. The world has already faced the tragic consequences of keeping silent about such crimes. They have generated in a form of new atrocities of this kind. I believe the Pope’s visit to the Armenian Genocide Memorial in Yerevan will once again draw the attention of the civilized world to this crime of the last century–lest such crimes are allowed to happen again.
Avenire: John Paul II’s visit to Armenia coincides with the 10th anniversary of independence of the Republic of Armenia. These ten years have been marred by a military conflict–economic crisis and mass emigration from the country. Do you think your fellow citizens have any reasons to celebrate this anniversary?
R.K.: The road to independence is difficult for everyone and no nation has ever managed to avoid such difficulties. We are overcoming these difficulties by displaying collective will. In the first years of independence–our people were forced to deal with issues of survival–the Karabakh war–blockade–and economic decline–but they managed to withstand this difficult test. Today–we are slowly but surely reaching a normal pace of economic development. I am deeply convinced that the next few years will be much easier–much safer and much more secure than the past years. Our people will be able to dedicate themselves fully to peaceful and creative work to provide their families’ with welfare and happiness. Moreover–I am confident that many of our citizens who had emigrated from the country will return home to find appropriate job opportunities and decent living conditions here.
Yes–our people have a reason to celebrate the tenth anniversary of our independent state–because in the last ten years–together with the difficulties–we have had obvious victories and achievemen’s–which give us confidence to believe that we are on the right direction.
Avenire: The war in Nagorno-Karabakh ended in 1994–but there is still no peace. How long would it take to reach some sort of solution?
R.K.: I think it is not right to set deadlines and make forecasts in such issues. I would only say that we continue to work actively in this direction.
Avenire: Unlike a number of former Soviet republics–Armenia is strengthening its ties with Russia. Is this for defense reasons only–or are there other considerations as well?
R.K.: Russia is Armenia’s traditional ally–and the interests of the two countries are very close or coincide on many issues. This is one factor that determines the strategic partnership between our countries. The Armenian-Russian relations are also enriched by our shared history and deep spiritual and cultural ties between the two peoples. As for military cooperation with Russia–it’s presence in this region plays a considerable stabilizing role.
Avenire: Does Armenia of the third millennium still regard itself as Western civilization’s bulwark against the expansion of Islam?
R.K.: Never in all previous millennia had Armenia regarded itself as Western civilization’s bulwark against the expansion of Islam. We have never confused the savage expressions of Islamic extremism in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 with the true values of Islam–which we have been living with side-by-side for many centuries. We have warm and friendly relations with many Islamic countries. Large Armenian communities preserve their religious and national identity in Iran and the countries of the Middle East. Within the contemporary context of dialogue between civilizations–we support the concept of harmony and universal friendship of the Nagorno Karabagh Autonomous Region to lawfully choose–through referendum–whether they would join Azerbaijan as it seceded from the Soviet Union. Finally–Azerbaijan claims its borders and jurisdiction is based on Soviet law yet Azerbaijan explicitly declared itself a successor to the first republic of 1918-20–whereby denying legal continuity with the intervening Soviet period so its claims to its Soviet-era borders is without foundation.
Avenire: Yet Azerbaijan continues to insist on its claims to Nagorno Karabagh–even going so far as to condemn the recent local elections held there?
R.K.: This is truly absurd. Since 1995–Nagorno Karabagh has held local elections. In fact–in OSCE documen’s dating back to 1992 Helsinki–there is a clear understanding that not only is Nagorno Karabagh a party to negotiations–but that its elected authorities should be the ones representing it.
It is ironic that Azerbaijan indifferently rejects and criticizes the efforts of the people of Nagorno Karabagh to run their lives on principles and practices of democratic–electoral representation–even as it is criticized by international observers for ignoring free and fair election procedures during its own elections.
There is another concern here. Azerbaijan’s ill-intentioned opposition to local elections in Nagorno Karabagh constitutes a serious road-block in the peaceful negotiation process.
Avenire: Has the peace process stalled? How do you assess the more and more frequent calls for a military solution that emanate from Azerbaijan?
R.K.: Nagorno Karabagh negotiations have stalled because Azerbaijan has backtracked after the Paris meetings–reneging on its commitment to continue to seek a compromise solution. The Paris framework to which the Minsk co-chairmen have frequently referred to is being cast aside in favor of militaristic jingoism. Azerbaijan apparently continues to hope that a favorable military solution will be found to this conflict and the warmongering and militaristic statemen’s coming out of Azerbaijan–from all segmen’s of political leadership–including immediate collaborators of President Aliyev–are indicators that they have no interest in recognizing the rights of the people of Nagorno Karabagh to self-determination. Such bellicose–belligerence does not contribute to an atmosphere of compromise and peace making. Instead it pollutes the negotiating environment and facilitates unprovoked violence. Rather than educating the public for a peaceful compromise–it promotes the myth of an absolute victory. And finally–polemics like this inevitably lead to harsh violence. Azerbaijan should condemn all such war talk and even the hint of renewed violence.
Avenire: What is your reaction to Azerbaijan’s commen’s using the US attacks to call attention to itself as a victim of terrorism?
R.K.: Azerbaijan should categorically condemn all violence especially the attacks on the US–rather than utilize and trivialize them for its own propaganda purposes. Azerbaijan should go further and look to compensating for its own history of state terror against its own citizens–especially the Armenia’s who lived throughout Azerbaijan–not just Nagorno Karabagh and who suffered at Azerbaijani hands throughout the Soviet period and beyond. Indeed–Azerbaijan continues to be linked to the use of terror–as evidenced by the fact that Canada has placed it on its list of states which harbor terrorists. The Washington Post–too–indicated Baku is linked to the bombings of US embassies in Africa. This places Azerbaijan in a rather difficult situation. It can either redeem itself by joining in the search for regional peace–or it can continue to be classified among states which seek military solutions.